Check out the stunning artwork for Mastodon’s sixth album. The Atlanta four-piece are well known for their covers, which usually feature massive animals depicted with a psychedelic edge, a perfect visual representation of their prog-tinged, crushingly heavy soundscapes. Once More ’Round The Sun’s garish, nightmarish monster is made from swirls of blazingly bright colours and clutches what appears to be the sun in that green, twisted palm. It’s easily their most striking and mind-melting album artwork to date. But it’s also misleading, for what lies beneath is Mastodon at their most mainstream.
When we spoke to the band about the album in the last issue of Prog, their take on it left one overriding impression: that, essentially, this album is the sound of Mastodon maturing, of simplifying their song structures and ultimately taking things back to basics. Their last album, 2011’s The Hunter, topped numerous Critics’ Choice ‘End Of Year’ lists and broke into the charts. It was such a commercial success for them that you might have expected the pressure to have been heavy on their shoulders for album number six. But Mastodon haven’t given in to any of the ensuing expectation. Rather than get into a creative panic and trying too hard to top The Hunter’s success or push the boundaries of experimentation, they’ve just focused their energy on making good, solid rock songs.
While The Hunter was a concept album, Once More ’Round The Sun is the product of the ensuing years between both albums, the songs drawing their subject matter from the bands’ lives during this time. Most of these songs follow a similar formula: thick, sludgy, layered riffs opening up into melodic choruses. The heaviness that characterised early albums Remission and Leviathan is a million miles away, as are traces of extreme metal – and Mastodon have mustered up some of their catchiest numbers to date.
Though the experimental Aunt Lisa features some death metal vocals that hark back to their more extreme roots, the majority of this album deals in multi-vocal, melodic and harmonic mixtures that fit well with the album’s infectious character and also give the songs an added depth. This formula hits us straight from the get-go with the Middle Eastern-tinged opener Tread Lightly, as the chorus blooms with rich yet gruff layered vocals.
The Motherload’s rolling riffs and earworm-catchy singalong chorus looks set to be a festival favourite, not unlike The Hunter’s Curl Of The Burl (though the happy clappy lyrics may irritate some). High Road follows up with another catchy chorus and sunny demeanor, and the title track itself brings to mind Queens Of The Stone Age, with its toe-tapping, desert rock-style riffs.
But before you go thinking that the cheery, crowd-pleasing rock numbers and talk of simplifying their methods means they must have scrapped their progressive elements, thus alienated every reader of this here magazine, fret not. Crack The Skye it ain’t, but Mastodon haven’t abandoned their experimental quirks. If anything, they’ve just made them more accessible.
Though they’re perhaps less to the fore than on previous works, the techy, elaborate interludes and bass-heavy, metal riffage are still there. Closing track Diamond In The Witch House is a darker and heavier beast than the rest of the preceding album, while the racing, erratic beats of Chimes At Midnight, the guitar-clinic twiddles of Feast Your Eyes and the irregular twangs and overall sonic variety of Aunt Lisa show they haven’t abandoned their proggy pastures.
Whatever your take on Mastodon, whether you yearn for their heavier days or wish they’d just go full-on prog already, there’s no denying the predominantly high quality of Once More ‘Round The Sun. Here they sound more settled, at ease with themselves and the music that they’ve made.
It may not be their most creative output, or even their best, but it is a strong piece of work that consolidates their reputation as one of the leading bands in heavy music today.